The Miracle of Braile Street
It was a muggy summer evening in 1964, years before we could afford air conditioning in our little Detroit bungalow. We were entertaining my Aunt Ariel and Uncle Harry, who were visiting from out of town.
In those days, no one in my small middle-class neighborhood had even dreamed of owning the futuristic window AC units that would soon keep us blissfully cool. In a few short years, we’d savor the chilled air as we gathered in our 9×12 curtained-off living room. But now, in the early 1960’s, surviving the sweltering Michigan humidity meant retreating to our dark, unfinished basement. The gray concrete walls were drab, the open joisted ceilings had exposed wiring, and the decades-old room-sized rugs were threadbare. The surroundings may have been dank and depressing, but the cool temperature beckoned us, and we spent many hot summer evenings in the sanctity of our chilly underground den.
On this particular July evening, my parents, younger brother, aunt, uncle, and I were grouped around the large old black and white Zenith (the only brand of television my dad would ever buy). The six of us were sprawled comfortably on dated, dusty hand-me-down furniture. We had a selection of four TV stations from which to choose, including a Canadian station from across the border. Tonight, the folks had chosen to watch a rebroadcast of the old 1940s movie, “The Song of Bernadette.”
As the story unveiled, the adults only paid slight attention to the plot, and they gabbed quietly amongst themselves now and then. My brother mostly ignored the movie, as he ran the tires of his little toy cars back and forth on the arm of the couch. But for me, it was a different matter. I was deeply engrossed in the story of the peasant children, enrapt by the saintly Bernadette Soubirous, the young girl who witnessed the miracle of Our Lady of Fatima in 1858 France.
As a young, impressionable Catholic girl, I had been raised to say my prayers before meals and bedtime. I had my own Rosary made of sparkly beads, and I learned stories of Jesus and saints and miracles at catechism class every Monday. I hadn’t had my first communion yet, but my brother and I had attended church with Mom every Sunday morning and holy day as far back as my young mind could remember. Now I sat motionless on the old couch, in rapt attention. The Virgin Mary (or “the beautiful lady” as Bernadette called her) had appeared to this young girl who wasn’t much older than I was! My imagination whirled.
Could something like this ever happen to me, or would I have to receive communion first?
Could the Virgin Mary appear to me near the big elm tree behind the swing set in the corner of my small backyard?
Was the Virgin waiting to talk to me, even now, in the alley behind the house?
Did miracles even happen in Detroit? Did they only happen in the country? Or in France? Or in the past?
The movie was long, yet I sat silently, mouth agape the entire two and a half hours. I was seven years old and in awe of the movie’s star. Jennifer Jones played Bernadette, and she was perfect in her role of the beautiful young girl who spoke to the Virgin in the small grotto.
In that moment, I knew I wanted to be Bernadette. She was so pretty and pure and good. Why couldn’t the church and government officials see that she was telling the truth about her encounter with the mother of God? No one as saintly as she could be lying about this miraculous event.
More questions invaded my mind.
Did the Virgin only visit really good girls?
Did she just appear outdoors or could she come to my room?
What if she knew I accidentally broke the Virgin Mary statue Sister Blanche gave me for Christmas last year? Would she be angry with me?
Again and again, I would become lost in thought, then be drawn back into the drama that unfolded on the screen. The hours passed quickly, my mind absorbing every fascinating detail of the religious story. Finally, the beloved Bernadette was vindicated and she died with a vision of the Virgin calling her home.
The movie wound to a close, the credits rolled, and I slowly became aware of my surroundings. Mom reminded me that it was late. She had allowed me to stay up past my usual bedtime in order to let me spend more time with my visiting relatives. Now she told me it was time to kiss them goodnight and get ready for bed.
I sat up straight, my mind still swirling over the miraculous events I had just witnessed and the possibilities of what could occur in my own simple life. I started to rise from the sofa, and began to stretch, but my legs wouldn’t obey. They had been curled underneath me the entire movie, and now they felt like dead weight.
I sat in a confused state for a moment or two, then the undeniable facts came crashing down…could it mean? Yes, I think… I think…. in some strange, miraculous event, I HAD BECOME PARALYZED!
The grown ups were chatting about the movie, preparing to rise and go to bed. They were blissfully unaware of my dilemma. My brother had fallen asleep halfway through the story, and was peacefully sleeping through the dramatic event now unfolding in my shattering young life.
I tried to cope quietly with this catastrophic event on my own. I didn’t want to upset my parents right away. I knew this would devastate them. I was suddenly aware that their entire future would change, as would mine, of course, and I knew at once that I wanted to spare them this heartache as long as I could. I looked sadly at my poor dear little brother would never be able to play tag with me again. Who would walk to school with him? Would he miss me as he rode his bicycle to the park?
In vain, I quietly struggled to stand to my feet, but I definitely couldn’t feel my legs. It was no use; I was overcome with fright, too upset to remain quiet any longer. I fell to the floor and cried out, “It’s a miracle! It’s a miracle! It’s a miracle!”
The room became silent as all chatter ceased. Four pairs of wide eyes turned to stare down at me, collapsed on the rose-patterned rug.
“It’s a miracle!” I repeated. “It’s a miracle! I’m paralyzed!”
More silence. Four pairs of eyes became wider.
“My legs! I can’t feel my legs! Help! It must be because I’ve sinned! I’m not a good girl like Bernadette and I think it’s a… it’s a… it’s a reverse miracle!”
Finally surmising the truth, the adults began to snicker, then their expressions contorted as they struggled in vain to conceal their laughter.
“My legs don’t work! It’s a miracle, don’t you understand? It’s a miracle just like in the movie! Only I wasn’t good like Bernadette. I’m not pure like she was. I’m a sinner, and my miracle is that I’m paralyzed!”
My mother quickly recovered from shock and came to my aid. She knelt on the floor, pulled me onto her lap, and drew me into her arms.
“Honey, your legs just fell asleep from sitting on them for so long. You’ll be alright in a minute. Don’t they feel a little tingly?”
I did feel a bit of a prickly painful sensation starting from below the ankles, but both my legs still felt like thick stumps. This was just the kind of thing that happened in a reverse miracle, wasn’t it? A young girl, perhaps not up to date in saying her Rosary, maybe she lies to her parents now and then about small things, but it adds up, and then suddenly wham! God smites her with a reverse miracle, paralyzes her to get her attention. I was sure this was what must be happening.
“I don’t know, Mom. Are you sure?” I clung to her tightly. “I can’t feel my legs at all. I think God has punished me for my sins.”
“No dear, you’re a good little girl and God isn’t punishing you. Your legs just fell asleep, that’s all. You must have been sitting on them during the movie. Stand up and try to move around. You’ll be able to walk okay in a few minutes.”
My aunt, uncle, and especially my father were still struggling to restrain themselves, but there were several loud guffaws interspersed with their attempts. I noticed none of them would meet my eyes. They kept looking at each other with painful expressions. Were they trying to shield me from the awful truth?
I watched them more carefully, trying to listen to what they were whispering to each other.
“It’s a miracle.” I heard my father say under his breath.
This caused another round of suppressed laughter.
“Bill, shush, she’s upset,” my aunt whispered, but I noticed that she, too, was shaking with laughter, and her face quickly disappeared behind a large throw pillow.
I could see now that I may have jumped to conclusions a little too quickly. As I moved my legs about, I felt the blood begin to return with needle-like sensations. I labored to my feet and limped slowly, tentatively back and forth on the rug. Then I shook and stomped on each foot and felt them begin to come to life. Apparently I would walk, after all.
“Well, miracles do happen,” I mumbled to myself, embarrassed about my mistaken ideas, yet extremely relieved to have regained my footing and the possibility of an ambulatory future.
I made a vow to myself and to God that night in my basement on Braile Street. I would be a better girl in the future. I would be nicer to my baby brother. I would always tell the truth. I would remember to say my prayers. I would say a Rosary every day.
If I followed through on any of those vows, It would be a real miracle.